Protecting Your Water Supply

Aug 13, 2014

The majority of people living in the United States do not think about their tap water until there is a problem. Because of the quality and reliability of water service in the United States, along with the fact that most of the infrastructure that supports drinking water is buried underground, most people take their water for granted – a high-quality supply of water is always available when you turn on your faucet.

Residents of the Toledo, Ohio area were greeted last week with a ban on using the water coming into their homes because of a large algae bloom that contaminated the city’s drinking water that is taken from Lake Erie.  Residents were told not to drink the water or use it for washing dishes or brushing teeth. 

The South Central Connecticut Regional Water Authority (SCCRWA) has a strong program in place to protect our region’s reliable supply of high-quality water. One of the components of this program is a multi-barrier approach to the protection and delivery of high quality water. This approach focuses on watershed and aquifer management to protect the quality of your drinking water sources, treatment of the water prior to consumption, maintenance of the distribution system that delivers water to your tap, and monitoring the quality of the water to ensure that you receive the highest-quality water possible.

The first line of defense in this approach is a strong source water protection program. The SCCRWA’s source water protection program focuses on pollution prevention and watershed management. We own and maintain over 27,000 acres of watershed land in south central Connecticut, much of it forested. We monitor the quality of the water and activity on the surrounding land, watching for potential contamination of the lakes and aquifers that are used as the sources of tap water for 430,000 residents in the greater New Haven area. Buying and protecting watershed land is an important investment for the long-term protection of our region’s water supply.

It has long been acknowledged that human actions on land affect the quality of a region’s water resources. Excess pesticides and nutrients from lawns and gardens, bacteria from animal waste, and various contaminants such as petroleum products from leaking vehicles or industrial by-products can be carried by stormwater runoff into nearby storm drains and water bodies. The water quality of lakes and reservoirs is largely a function of watershed land cover; forested watershed land is much more effective than more urbanized areas at protecting water quality.

The algal bloom in Toledo underscores the need for protecting the land around water supplies.  Algal blooms are not uncommon, particularly in Lake Erie.  Run-off from fertilizer from agricultural land near the lake, animal waste, climate change, and invasive zebra mussels were some of the most significant factors contributing to the harmful algal bloom.

The second line of defense in the multi-barrier solution to provide high-quality drinking water is water treatment facilities. Water in aquifers is naturally filtered underground. Lake water is filtered at our filtration plants. Water from reservoirs is brought into treatment plants and is filtered and disinfected to ensure that any disease-causing bacteria, parasites and viruses are destroyed before the water enters the distribution system.

Today’s treatment facilities are designed to meet known drinking water standards and contaminants and must be continually upgraded as new technology is introduced or additional contaminants are identified.  Future challenges may be brought about by emerging contaminants (for example, pharmaceuticals and personal care products), toxins produced by algal blooms, changes in laboratory capabilities to detect new contaminants at lower concentrations, and changing climate. The SCCRWA’s treatment staff works to keep ahead of these challenges.

The third step in the multi-barrier approach is a well-maintained distribution system. The treated water is delivered to you through a 1,700 mile-long network of pipes, pumping stations, and storage tanks. The SCCRWA carefully maintains this extensive network to ensure that high-quality water is available whenever you turn on your tap.

The fourth step is water quality monitoring. Water quality testing is essential for identifying existing water quality concerns at each source of supply, for defining land use/water-quality relationships and for predicting long-term water quality trends.  In addition, it provides an early warning system for contamination incidents. 

Each year, the SCCRWA conducts more than 120,000 water quality tests on over 15,000 water samples taken from numerous locations throughout the water distribution system, within our water treatment plants, and in the lakes and aquifers where the water is stored prior to treatment. These samples are brought back to our nationally certified laboratory for microbiological testing as well as organic and inorganic chemical testing. The laboratory uses analytical devices as simple as pH meters or as complex as gas chromatographs and mass spectrometers. The results of these tests are compared to more than 175 state and federal standards and are reported to the Connecticut Department of Public Health on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis and to our consumers through the annual Water Quality Report.

This multi-barrier approach combines source water protection, state-of-the-art treatment technologies, a well-maintained distribution system, and constant and vigilant monitoring to ensure that only the highest-quality drinking water is provided to our consumers.